Competing endogenous RNAs (ceRNAs) were recently introduced as RNA transcripts that affect each other's expression level through competition for their microRNA (miRNA) coregulators. This stems from the bidirectional effects between miRNAs and their target RNAs, where a change in the expression level of one target affects the level of the miRNA regulator, which in turn affects the level of other targets. By the same logic, miRNAs that share targets compete over binding to their common targets and therefore also exhibit ceRNA-like behavior. Taken together, perturbation effects could propagate in the posttranscriptional regulatory network through a path of coregulated targets and miRNAs that share targets, suggesting the existence of distant ceRNAs. Here we study the prevalence of distant ceRNAs and their effect in cellular networks. Analyzing the network of miRNA-target interactions deciphered experimentally in HEK293 cells, we show that it is a dense, intertwined network, suggesting that many nodes can act as distant ceRNAs of one another. Indeed, using gene expression data from a perturbation experiment, we demonstrate small, yet statistically significant, changes in gene expression caused by distant ceRNAs in that network. We further characterize the magnitude of the propagated perturbation effect and the parameters affecting it by mathematical modeling and simulations. Our results show that the magnitude of the effect depends on the generation and degradation rates of involved miRNAs and targets, their interaction rates, the distance between the ceRNAs and the topology of the network. Although demonstrated for a miRNA-mRNA regulatory network, our results offer what to our knowledge is a new view on various posttranscriptional cellular networks, expanding the concept of ceRNAs and implying possible distant cross talk within the network, with consequences for the interpretation of indirect effects of gene perturbation.
Copyright © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.